-  ODOT turns down zone but recommends pedestrian improvements on Highway 212 -  City explores alternatives

Jim Wakefield surveys the bustling stretch of Highway 212 in front of Damascus Christian School and thinks of his four grandchildren.

They are among 235 K-12 students who attend the private school on Southeast Rust Way, and Wakefield worries about their proximity to the highway.

“One child is as precious as 100,” he said. “So far, it’s fortunate there hasn’t been a severe tragedy, but time plays out.”

Throughout the last decade, Damascus Christian officials and families have sought a designated school zone, concerned about the highway’s potential dangers.

Each time, the school has been denied because traffic investigations showed the highway section did not meet Oregon Department of Transportation criteria.

The decision to designate a school zone is based on crash history, traffic volumes, existing posted speed, number of student pedestrians and/or bicyclists, marked pedestrian crossings, the location of the school in relation to the roadway and information provided in a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Action Plan.

ODOT said it does not differentiate between private and public schools when evaluating requests for school speed zones.

The last two years, Wakefield, the father of Principal Dave Wakefield, has spearheaded efforts in securing a school zone. He said the process feels like a drawn out, bureaucratic effort.

While only a handful of students walk to school, many older students venture to nearby eateries and businesses during school breaks and amid after-school activities.

The nearest crosswalk is a half-mile west on Foster Road, and Wakefield said students often dart across instead of walking to the crosswalk.

In response to school and city concerns, ODOT has posted school advance warning signs; conducted a speed zone investigation, extending the existing 35 mph speed zone a half-mile further east; and taken a three-day pedestrian count in 2012.

The city of Damascus completed a sidewalk on the north side of the highway, near Wiese Road, connecting school property west to Foster Road.

Still, Wakefield and others are resolved to designate a school zone.

“Thus far, no child death or injury has occurred with the lax conditions which have, and do exist,” Wakefield said. “This, in fact, can so easily change tragically, should delay continue.”

Earlier this year, Steve Gaschler, then Damascus public works director, requested that ODOT perform a school speed zone investigation on Highway 212 from Wiese Road to 300 feet east of Rust Way, the boundaries of the school.

ODOT did not approve a school speed zone this year, but sees a need for pedestrian improvements on the highway, such as marked crosswalks with median islands, and traffic controls, such as Rapid Flash beacons.

An Aug. 23 letter said these modifications will involve discussion with the community “so that improvements meet the local needs and have the least negatives impacts.”

“Like all traffic control devices, improper establishment of school speed zones have the potential to result in situations that are more unsafe than without a school speed zone,” wrote Bob Pappe, a state traffic and roadway engineer. “When there are virtually no students present and visible to drivers, drivers learn to disregard the school speed zone.”

The ODOT study noted that no Damascus Christian student crossed Highway 212 during a three-day pedestrian count in April 2012 (26 pedestrians outside the school crossed it) and four were observed walking adjacent to the highway.

Following the letter, Matt Zook, acting city manager, said the City Council plans to meet with ODOT in mid-October to discuss potential alternatives to an official school zone.

“This is a exploratory meeting,” Zook said. “We want to do what we can to help citizens through this process. Once we have that meeting, we’ll have a better sense of what we need to bring to the council.”

In an already congested area, residents and city officials have raised concerns about lowering the speed limit from 35 along the stretch to 20 in a school zone.

But Wakefield said it only takes one moment for an accident to involve a student and alter people’s thoughts. He’d rather be proactive.

“We talk about concern about child safety, but the proof is in the pudding,” Wakefield said.

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